Giving more visibility to minorities in mathematics: practical guidelines

Inspired by the recent paper Addressing the underrepresentation of women in mathematics conferences by Greg Martin, I decided to create a short and practical "to-do" list for conference organisers. This list does not apply to the specific field of mathematics, nor to women only. It's all good to involve all minorities, in any field. Take into consideration also developing countries, for instance.

Why bother

Quoting Martin directly,

This underrepresentation is the result of implicit biases present within all of us [...]. These mutually reinforcing biases [...] oppose women’s careers through their effects on hiring, evaluation, awarding of prizes, and inclusion in journal editorial boards and conference organization committees. Underrepresentation of women as conference speakers is a symptom of these biases [...].

Giving more visibility to minorities can balance out the bias through offering real opportunities of growth; in addition, it creates role models, much needed to spread equal opportunities and encouragement among the younger generation. How many times I myself found courage to balance my family and my job in the stories of other women scientists, who had ever more kids. It really matters.

If you are result-oriented, you want it as well. Giving equal opportunities means also attracting the best talents and adding human and cultural diversity to a field is a proven-fact of increasing chances of success.

The checklist

If you don't have time to go through Martin's paper right away, I took the chance to summarise some of his points in a practical to-do list for you. This does not replace the paper of course, but I hope to make the message more practical to be more easily implemented. Please notice that when I use the term "balance", I do not intend it exactly 50-50: use your good sense (or, in doubt, stats)! Martin suggests to even fix a proportion in advance and force yourselves to fulfill it at every decision stage.

  1. Balance the organising committee.
  2. Balance the key-note or plenary speakers, also when giving priorities to certain speakers' calendars when fixing the dates of the event.
  3. If you are in a prize committee, balance the brainstorming list of candidates.
  4. Balance the speakers of any panel you organise, balance the minisession chairs.
  5. Consider practical obstacles faced by the minority: in the case of women, childcare or travel grants can be crucial to participate.
  6. Do not hesitate to take a stand and explicitly declare your positive intents on the conference website: creating awareness is important.
  7. Consider organising a specific extra-session where the issue is discussed by the members of the community.
  8. In the specific case of women, harassment at conferences is a thing. Issue a clear statement on the event website (you can find some ready-made on the net), name a contact person and avoid pools of free alcohol at the conference dinner.

This is a short list. If you got interested in the topic, do not refrain from reading Martin's paper, which contains a more complete list of suggestions.

If you got curious about the topic of minorities in mathematics, I suggest also reading this book: Change is possible, by P. C. Kenschaft.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

2 thoughts to “Giving more visibility to minorities in mathematics: practical guidelines”

  1. I really like your blog and effort you put on math popularization from very different viewpoints. I went few your note and it suppose me a bit. I was thinking how to call the list you presented and the right tittle would be " how to increase discrimination during organization of the event".

    First of all I have no idea what does "balancing" means. Should I invite people who are leading in the area and willing to participate or jus the right ones from the "balance" point of view? Should I force giving the prize to someone from the minority just because she/he is a part of the minority? I will call such a behavior hurting for the one obtaining the prize and other candidates. Could you imagine obtaining a mathematical prize because you are " a part of the minority"?

    Another thing is point nr. 5. " in the case of women, childcare or travel grants can be crucial to participate" I cannot understand why only in the case of woman a travel grant or childcare is crucial. Does being a man makes me a second class parent? Why do you assume that only women take care of children? I would call it quite a discrimination......

    And last but not least point 8.
    In the specific case of women, harassment at conferences is a thing. Issue a clear statement on the event website (you can find some ready-made on the net), name a contact person and avoid pools of free alcohol at the conference dinner.
    Harassment is unacceptable. It does not matter if the harassed person is women or man. Why harassment avoiding procedure relates only to woman? In my opinion it a special treatment of one group of people. There is a word for that..... discrimination.

    1. Dear Nicolas, thank you for your comment. It is always refreshing to hear different opinions and re-examine one's own motivation.
      Handling bias and possibly discrimination is always a difficult issue and, as you point out, how to do it in a powerful, yet fair way? I think for instance about the controversial gender quotas. Some say it's humiliating and against the values they want to promote, some call it a compromising and temporary solution to bring back some balance.

      Regarding this particular issue of gender balance in science, I start from my personal experience as a woman - which includes bullying and sexual harassment on the study and workplace, both witnessed and experienced - and then rely on data. These two convinced me that there may be a problem in science and academia. Add that until less than 100 years ago (and still in some countries) women were excluded from academic studies and research. I doubt it changed from one day to the other.
      Having assessed there are some discouraging factors for women to participate to science research and academic life, I start thinking about possible solutions. Many studies talk about unconscious bias, which you may change by promoting role models. This is why I suggest to include more women in organising boards and winner longlists of award candidates (note: only longlists, not recipients).

      Then there are travel grants and harassment at conferences. I am firm that both things must be addressed to all participants, regardless of gender. On the other hand, I am convinced that such policies will favour women more than men. This only because in most countries women are still the main carer for children (not to mention breastfeeding) and women are victims of (sexual) harassment more often.

      As I underline in the post, these guidelines are general and applicable to any minority issue. I focused on women because the author of the paper did and because I feel it a personal issue.
      I hope, as I am sure you do, we won't have to worry about these things in 30 years and that knowledge and research will be accessible to increasingly more people in the world, despite of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, anything.

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